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Published: Saturday, 11/16/2002

No easy answers in sight for FM 91 programming choices

BY STEVEN CORNELIUS
BLADE MUSIC CRITIC

Service is the driving force behind public radio broadcasting. FM 91's programming must add value to the community it serves, says WGTE station president and general manager Marlon Kiser.

But whose values and which community?

FM 91 first went on the air on May 2, 1976, with a single 30,000-watt Toledo-based transmitter. Today, after taking advantage of a statewide initiative to ensure that public radio reached every community in the state, the station also has transmitters in Lima (WGLE), Bryan (WGBE), and Defiance (WGDE). The station ranks 78th in market size with a potential audience of 500,000 aged 12 years and older. About 40,000 listeners tune in on a weekly basis.

Looking north into Michigan, FM 91 competes with public radio stations in Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti, and Detroit. Looking south and west into much of Northwest Ohio, FM 91 is the area's only public radio provider.

The central question is, how can FM 91 best serve those who rely on the station to provide the range and variety of high-quality, in-depth programming that public radio is equipped to offer?

There is no easy answer. The station might improve ratings by replacing some of its classical music programming with more news, talk, entertainment, or even a broader music mix. But management resists going that route.

Instead, the station looks to uphold its quarter-century-long classical music tradition. That commitment was confirmed and strengthened last spring with the hiring of music director and afternoon radio host Greg Kostraba.

Station officials also worry that more diverse programming might drive away as many listeners as it attracts, said Kiser.

Since its inception, FM 91 has courted a loyal, but apparently inflexible, classical music audience. Programming changes would almost certainly raise listener ire. They have in the past.

For example, it has been more than a decade since former station president and general manager Shirley Timonere moved to put the news show Morning Edition in place of three hours of classical music in the 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. slot.

At the time, the station's classical music programmers resisted the move. Still today, station officials get complaints from listeners over the format switch.

This past spring, some classical music devotees canceled memberships when the station pulled an hour of afternoon music and replaced it with the interview-format show, Fresh Air with Terry Gross.

Complaints or not, these award-winning programs clearly forward FM 91's mission of providing quality and informative programming.

Kiser may have to make more controversial decisions if listener ratings don't improve. WGTE's board of directors is coming to grips with this fact. Board president George Jones III says that while no specific recommendations have been discussed in detail, format changes are probably in the station's future.



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